Posted on May 10, 2012
Really? $120m for a painting? Are you serious?
Royal Gazette Newspaper
Last week in New York, the strangest thing happened - which is not unusual as many strange things often happen over there.
But before I reveal it, I hope that Madame Premier Paula Cox can paint. Or at least someone in the Cabinet can. Actually, no, better she put brush to canvass. It will add more value.
Because value is what this is all about….isn’t it?
Edvard Munch’s masterpiece ‘The Scream’, one of the world’s most recognisable works of art, probably second behind the Mona Lisa, sold for $120 million at Sotheby’s auction house, setting a new record as the most expensive piece of art ever sold at auction. The actual highest price ever recorded, which wasn’t at auction, but was noted in the media, was the $250 million paid for the Paul Cezanne ‘The Card Players’. It hangs at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris and I have seen it. Another expensive piece is the late Irish artist Francis Bacon’s painting called ‘The Triptych’, which was sold to Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich for $86 million.
Sotheby’s Impressionist and modern art auction last week was a resounding success for modern greed as it also featured top works by Picasso, Dali and Miro. But Munch’s vibrant work from 1895 was the star attraction in a salesroom packed with art collectors, dealers, spectators, speculators, critics, hangers-on, tire-kickers, self-indulgent clueless wannabes and media. Oddly, for one of the first times ever, the media was the most self-respecting portion of the throng.
None-the-less, and I don’t wish to malign the painting at all, ‘The Scream’ was conservatively estimated to sell for about $80 million, but two determined bidders competing via telephone emerged from an initial group of seven, driving the final price to $107 million, or $119,922,500 including commission, over the course of a nearly 15-minute bidding war.
The winning bid was taken by a Sotheby’s executive, and the bidder was not identified. Which makes sense. Who would want to own up to spending $120 million on a painting that is over 110 years old when there is poverty aplenty, economic downturn (yeah, right), weather-related disasters and drought going on all over the planet?
Closer to home, just imagine how many of these ‘strained’ capital works projects the PLP Government could appease if some generous benefactor gave the Bermuda government $120 million? The Dockyard debacle for one with its $60 million-plus blow-out over spending, could be swept under the carpet.
Anyway, mankind isn’t like that. Its sense of priorities is screwed up and while I have been to Paris specifically to experience the many famed pieces in the equally famous art galleries, I do not see how $120 million is representative of the intrinsic value of this painting. Sure, attaching the poem that the Munch wrote specific to and about this painting, does add tremendous value in terms of actually understanding why he painted it in 1895, but really……$120 million?
I asked Lisa Howie the director of the Bermuda National Gallery what she thought about ‘The Scream’, and its price.
“First of all, I don’t have any background in art appraisal, but it goes without saying that art prices these days are berserk.”
Wow Lisa! I anticipated a backlash from her and indeed as I do from those in the public reading this who believe that art is so precious the prices are justified. But no, Lisa sided with conventional reality and reasoning. Now, perhaps the argument for spending so much is valid from an investment perspective….but even then, $120 million? But Lisa both shocked and impressed me at the same time, with her frank look at the situation, life, the gallery here in Bermuda and the articulate way she spoke.
“I don’t know who dreams up these prices, certainly in light of the economic struggles facing the world right now, but maybe it just shows the fragility of our world at present. In art, as in other sectors, they seem to have rules of their own,” she added.
Too true, so I pressed her further. Lisa, the obscene disparity between artistic and commercial value is it fair?
“‘The Scream’ does walk out of the western canon and has open narrative we can all relate to. And it does have existentialist value, but the ironic angle is that the absurd modern-day value of it may be the type of reasoning behind its creation in the first place.
”Interesting perspective….because on that Munch didn’t give too much of an explanation about his painting. It was ambiguous and abstract at best. There are four versions of this same painting, all created by Munch. Three hang in galleries across Norway, but this is the big dog, the one that comes with the Munch poem of explanation which is: “I was walking along the road with two friends. The sun was setting. The sky turned a bloody red and I felt a whiff of melancholy. I stood still, deathly tired over the blue-black fjord and city hung blood and tongues of fire. My friends walked on. I remained behind, shivering with anxiety. I felt the great Scream in Nature.” E M
Ok Ed…what the?
“It really is a question of what you value most,” continued Lisa. “Is it of cultural value or historical value? But what I am hoping is that the sale spikes interest in our gallery here in Bermuda. Our numbers are growing but they are still way inferior to what they can and should be.”
The Bermuda National Gallery does not have anything as valuable as ‘The Scream’ hanging on its walls. Which is not to say it doesn’t have any works that aren’t as good….technically. I think it does…but again that is speculative.
The entire contents of the BNG is insured for $6 million. Lisa Howie would not single out which piece is actually insured for the most…. “I feel wary about isolating pieces for mention but our collection is probably more historical and well worth coming to see.”
About 25,000 people a year pass through the BNG. Lisa thinks we can easily accommodate 75,000. “And it is free,” she added.
When the BNG showed a real live Rembrandt for two weeks recently, the numbers did spike considerably, and with the sale of ‘The Scream’ attracting global interest back towards art…maybe we all should go to the gallery again.
It would be fun now to go there and look over all the pieces to see which one actually is the mysterious “valued the most” piece.
But I still reckon if Ms Cox, sat with brush, easel, tripod, canvass and paint….it would generate a great deal of worth.
After all, she is the Finance Minister….and isn’t that what art is all about now?